Wearing ear plugs and earmuffs can protect your hearing on the job. Noise at work that is above 85 decibels can cause damage to your ears. One-time exposures that are very loud can cause permanent hearing damage.
"Once noise permanently damages the nerve endings in the inner ear, there's really no way to repair your hearing. Even a hearing aid can't completely correct it," says Suzette K. Mikula, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Washington, D.C. "Nearly everyone loses some hearing acuity as they age, but excessive noise can greatly accelerate the process."
"The noise level is dangerously high when you have to raise your voice to talk with someone an arm's length away," Dr. Mikula says. "Another sign is ringing in the ears or slight deafness for several hours after exposure."
Under U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, employers must offer hearing protection when sound levels average more than 85 decibels (dB) in an eight-hour day. OSHA says employers must make sure workers use that protection when sound levels average more than 90 dB in a day. You'll hear about this much noise from a lawnmower, shop tools, or truck traffic.
The two main hearing-protection choices, earplugs and earmuffs, can cut noise by 15 to 30 dB when properly fitted. OSHA says earplugs protect better against low-frequency noise, such as a loud tractor. Earmuffs do well with high-frequency noise, like pneumatic tools.
To provide protection:
Earplugs must block the ear canal with an airtight seal, so you must choose the right shape and size for your ears. If they won't stay in place, plugs can be fitted to a headband.
Earmuffs must fit firmly over your entire outer ear to form an airtight seal. They're held in place by an adjustable headband. If you wear them over eyeglasses or long hair, you won't have the proper seal.
Earplugs and earmuffs can be worn together when noise exceeds 105 dB—louder than a chain saw or pneumatic drill. The combination adds 10 dB to 15 dB of protection.
Noise-canceling earphones are available that actually cancel, by destructive interference, background noise. These can be worn in such setting as flying, riding in the car (not driving), or other noisy transportation, or in environments with high ambient background noise.
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